Where to next? The Merci Train and Race under Vichy

I’ve been writing drafts of posts to publish about various things : trip to archives in late August ; a yellow star ; the language of motherhood ; national identity in academia ; historians and online research ; the Horror of Trump and what it means to my students. This has produced a total of zero published blog posts since Friday 24 June – that fateful day when Britain woke up with one of the worst hangovers ever. Now, since 8 November, the entire world has a dreadful hangover – every morning we wake up and wonder – is it true? Did it really happen? I still shudder. I’m angry. We all shudder. We should all be angry.

But where to next? I wonder this about the more global, tolerant, open society built in the twentieth century – what is happening to it now? After Brexit and Trump, I don’t know. But whilst I try to figure this out, might as well get back to work. To research. But the same question arises: Where to next? [skip to paragraph 11 if you are limited in time]

The problem is an old one: as soon as you finish the PhD you are expected to embark on a new project. That is mostly wishful thinking, since turning your thesis into a book takes a hell of a long time. But it is also necessary – thinking of a new project helps you see the light at the end of the tunnel, but also think about how you see your self, your career, developing in the future. What new directions do you want to take?

Over the years I’ve felt torn over that very question. I elaborated a total of three post-PhD research projects over the years. Martyred towns was the first one – I wrote a chapter on that in a volume I edited with Alison Carrol. But I realised that whilst this was an interesting topic it was not really something I felt too passionate about. Because that’s it, isn’t it – the next research project is a second chance at doing something you like way more than your doctoral thesis.

My second project idea was on race under Vichy. My interest in the history of discrimination and exclusion, and my work with the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, made me think that whilst there was a huge literature around antisemitism in Vichy France, there was not much written about the history of race and racism during the ‘dark years’. I started to outline a project entitled Being Black under Vichy which focussed on the experience of non-white people in the metropole. I did some preliminary archival research and found that there were some interesting archives which showed a kind of everyday racism which was bubbling beneath the much more visible discrimination against Jews. It fits in with the recent burgeoning of works on French colonial Prisoners of War. This could be an interesting project, for sure. I’ve also started thinking about the material in the National Archives here in London, and what it tells me about race, resistance and Vichy. Transnational approach to (race under) Vichy? Archives on my doorstep? Yes please, thank you.

All the while, a third project was ticking away in my mind. In the SNCF archives during my PhD I’d discovered some documents about a Friendship Train, and I later stumbled across a lot more information on a random archive visit to the departmental archives in Toulouse. The Friendship Train had arrived there in early 1948 to distribute food and dried goods donated by the American people to the hungry, war-torn French population. The documents were describing the train’s arrival and distribution process, but also its somewhat mixed reception amongst the community. I was immediately intrigued: why had Americans made these donations? what did they include? Had other communities in France received similar donations?

The story of the Friendship Train was intriguing in itself, and I began to collate more information through at the Jewish Distribution Committee archives. Independent researchers had done some creative and significant work gathering archives about the Friendship Train, not least Dorothy Scheele, so the internet became an absolutely necessary tool. I traced the train’s trajectory across America and then France, listing state and departmental archives I would have to eventually explore, as well as the libraries and archives which housed the personal papers of those involved in the train’s organisation. Slowly, a picture began to emerge – not of grassroots humanitarianism, but of ideology and Hollywood. And behind that picture… another story.

In thanks for the Friendship Train, the French people donated a Merci Train in 1948-49. The Merci Train was made up of 52,000 objects* given by the French people to the Americans in 1948. The objects were extremely varied, from extraordinary objects such as the bugle that sounded the 1918 Armistice, to ordinary handkerchiefs with small embroidered flowers. Divided into 49 adorned boxcars, they traveled in a ship across the Atlantic before each boxcar was distributed to an American state (as well as Hawaii and Washington D.C.). Celebrations, parades, speeches greeted these objects. Exhibitions were put on, collections were preserved, boxcars were left to deteriorate and then were renovated in the late twentieth century. Again, independent researchers such as Earl Bennett were fascinated by this story which features no where in the history books, and their work so far is so critical, so fundamental.

Archives Nationales: 552AP/263 – Fonds Privés Vincent Auriol. French Railroad car containing gifts from New Jersey, leading parade in Trenton, New Jersey.

But the Merci Train, much like the Friendship Train, is not what it seems to be. Portrayed as an act of French gratitude for American help during and after the war, it was actually a very conservative, politically-motivated, nationalist gesture. Research into Vincent Auriol’s private papers in the Archives Nationales, and into some digital collections found online, suggests that by gifting 52,000 ordinary objects to the American people, the French were saying more than just ‘thank you’: this was about war, memory, loss, nationalism, regionalism. And also gratitude.

To get any kind of firm conclusions on this, though, I need to delve deeply into this history of objects – what were they? who were they from? who did they go to? where are they now? This is quite exciting. Using new approaches, transnational objects and international archives, all the while relying on the internet to trace historical witnesses, I’m extremely excited about writing about the immediate postwar period in a broader geographical sense.

So there it is: my decision. I long ago decided not to follow my idea on martyred towns, leaving it for someone else to pick up if they so wish. But I am stunned that I spent one paragraph writing about Being Black under Vichy, and four on the Merci Train. I even made the effort of adding in a PHOTO with a CAPTION. Wow. It is clearly the book I want to write. I’ve got some material on being black under Vichy, but really this should be able to fill a couple of papers/articles. The Next Book will be the story of the Merci Train – the story of Postwar France in 52,000 Objects. 

That being said, getting to archives in France and America is HARD when you have a tiny cute little baby-human that you want to spend time with. And when you have teaching loads etc etc. But yes, cute tiny human. So in the meantime, I’ll turn the archives I already have, and future ones I will get, into groundbreaking pieces on race under Vichy. Ta da! Because work is important but I’m more and more convinced I need it to fit into MY life – not the other way around, which I did for so many years. Those days are over.

Pros and Cons of doing two projects simultaneously:

Cons: I’ll be too dispersed ; I risk not being sufficiently focussed on either.

: more intellectual stimulation ; life is short so fuck it.
img_3234Between Feb and May 2017 I’m giving three papers in NYU and London on ‘Race in the Resistance’ and ‘Postwar Objects’. I have no doubt that the feedback I get will shape my future research trajectory. In the meantime I better get cracking. But first: it’s the weekend. It’s been a long week. Time to forget about time and politics and work and play with my son, the Gruffalo.




* The exact number is not known, as independent researcher Alexis Mueller has underlined in a private conversation, but it is probably in this range.


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